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The Highest Patriotism

This is a lengthy and complex analysis of a knotty and complicated issue. If you can read it through, rest assured you will be far more informed than you were when you began.  War is too important to be left solely to the military and the politicians. An informed, involved citizenry must demonstrate the highest patriotism if the country is to prevail and prosper.

“The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plain.”                                      George McGovern

Well before he uttered his first word shortly after 21:00 on 10 September 2014, President Obama could have been certain of only two things. First, no matter what course he outlined he was going to be pilloried. Second, his message would not be considered as it is, but only as those commenting wished to present it to conform to their preconceived notions. Those on the right would twist anything he said in order to attack, undercut, and vilify him. Those on the left would fixate on any indication of military action to characterize his proposal as a resumption of war in the Middle East.

Prior to the President’s address I stipulated what I believed he had to do to lead the nation in this new time that tries our souls. My Desiderata included the following points:

First, insist that Islamic allies be truly involved; second, support the Kurds; third, clarify how evil ISIL is; fourth, challenge Congress to quit carping from the sidelines and demonstrate unity of purpose; and fifth, convey determination and principled resolve without disclosing essential details.

Once the President had completed his address, I compared what he said to the preceding list and drew conclusions. In regard to the first point, the president was concise:

“But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. That’s why I’ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days. So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”

As to the Kurds, the President was equally forthcoming:

“Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces. Now that those teams have completed their work – and Iraq has formed a government – we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”

On the nature of ISIL, President Obama went into so detail:

“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

“In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists – Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.”

As to Congressional by standing and gratuitous castigating, the president was considerably more nuanced and made to remarks that pertain:

“Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and e quip these fighters.”

“I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”

On the fifth point concerning determination and principled resolve the president was much more on target:

“As Commander-in-Chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people. Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country.”

“Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That is why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL – which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

“America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia – from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East – we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.

“When we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant mountain, here’s what one of them said. “We owe our American friends our lives. Our children will always remember that there was someone who felt our struggle and made a long journey to protect innocent people.”

“That is the difference we make in the world. And our own safety – our own security – depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for – timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

The preceding excerpts convey what the President actually said and compare his remarks to previously stipulated criteria. By and large, President Obama scores high marks. If 20 points are awarded to each component, he earns a score of 85 to 90, and thus, a high B or low A. Without question, that would be a passing grade in any academic setting. Unfortunately, President Obama was not speaking in an academic setting.

Instead of one professor or even a board, President Obama’s address was immediately evaluated by almost every politically aware American and interested parties throughout the world. The stakes are far more momentous than any ever at risk in the groves of Academe. Lives, treasure, and the future of the region, at least, are on the line. In addition, due to the deranged nature of American politics, election outcomes and subsequent governance are at risk.

Even before the glow had vanished from TV screens around the nation and the globe, Republicans were launching attacks on the president and his address. Jennifer Rubin, a writer for the Washington Post with solid right-wing bona fides, criticized “Obama’s consistent unseriousness about the Islamic State.”   Because he told the truth about the situation rather that the hyperbolic lies used to launch and unjustified and unjustifiable attack on Iraq, Rubin believes President Obama is not serious.  One might be pardoned for thinking the same of Ms. Rubin who shares with her ideological cohorts a lust for other people’s blood that almost equates to vampirism. The unindicted war criminal, Richard Bruce Cheney or Dick as he is commonly called, did not even wait for the president to speak before savaging what the president’s address might say. According to Dick:

“We are at war,” he said, and “we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win.” This means “we should halt the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan,” that we should “take military action if necessary” in Iran, and give “full backing and support” of those fighting the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Like his fellow “grumpy old man” John McCain, RBC has never sensed a war he doesn’t love. His motto seems to be – “The War the Merrier!” The relentlessly bellicose Mr. Cheney has shown no willingness to accept responsibility for the ruinous policies and military adventurism he largely inflicted on America and the world. Instead, he tries to spin dross into gold and polish an absolute turd of a legacy. That is not surprising, but why do so many people who certainly know better allow him to get away with it?

While he is the most repugnant practitioner of politically crafty militarism, Dick is not a one-man band. The fundamental deceptiveness of Republican criticism was exemplified by remarks  made Wednesday morning on the Senate floor by the Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who called Mr. Obama a “reluctant commander-in-chief’’ and then blathered about what the president should and should not say in the upcoming address. Given that almost 4,500 American military personal and over 300 coalition personnel died along with between 500, 000 and 1 million Iraqis due to the decisions of an eager commander-in-chief a modicum of reluctance should be welcomed. Notice that the wily McConnell uses the fallacious ad Hominem attack rather than address the substance of the forthcoming address.

Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, supports having an authorization vote, but he candidly admitted: “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”  Perhaps, Kingston’s candor stems from the fact that he lost a Georgia Senate Primary and is on his way out of Congress. Regardless, he highlights the sorry, self-absorbed nature of so many politicians in America’s fourth century. The frothing lunacy of some of the president’s most relentless attackers is perfectly shown by the soon to be former Congress Member Michelle Bachmann who while denouncing: “the president’s failure to take on ISIS faster,” told The Huffington Post: “We haven’t seen anything like this since Hitler and the blitzkrieg in World War II.” No matter where in the world trouble rears its head or the nature of the threat, reactionaries cannot seem to avoid seeing Hitlerian parallels!

As Gail Collins observes in the New York Times:

“During the run-up to the speech, Republicans had been irate about the president’s failure to act sooner, explain his plan faster and, in general, be tougher. Never had so many people demanded specifics without ever offering any of their own.” This failure to offer new and credible advice is a glaring chink in the armor of reactionaries. All their hypercriticism exploits the luxury of their utter lack of responsibility to actually do anything but fulminate. Quite literally the only constraints on their pronouncements are their variable sense of decency and tenuous contact with reality.

Even some people on the left have taken issue with the President’s address. Hayes Brown of Think Progress finds a single sentence of the address highly discouraging: ““This strategy of taking out terrorists, who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”  Mr. Brown finds this discouraging for two reasons. First, it is probably the “least encouraging thing” the president could say. Second, this approach makes “the odds that the fight against ISIS will be a short one extremely low.”  In short, President Obama is criticized on the left for not being deceptively optimistic and not misleading Americans into thinking a quick fix is at hand.

Also, on the left one finds alarmist remarks that completely distort what President Obama said about the judicious nature of these actions and repeatedly assert that any military action is tantamount to war in the fullest sense of the word. This forms an odd duet with right wing shrieks that more must be done – more American military personnel must be deployed; more bombs must be dropped; more and more widely spread offensive action must be taken and such action must be sustained for decades if need be. What president Obama is describing cannot be both too much and too little. It can, however, be neither. What the second guessers and naysayers refuse to acknowledge and strive to obscure is that the president is outlining a thoughtful, measured and proportionate response to the threat as it has been assessed.

As time and energy absorbing as verbal sparring about President Obama’s address may be, it is ineluctable that people of goodwill and genuine patriotism must confront the practical rather than the rhetorical issues. First, ISIL is a creature conceived in the grievously flawed Bush-Cheney attack on Iraq. Second, the barbarism of ISIL is camouflaged by the 14 century long struggle between the Sunni and Shia confessions of Islam. Third, the choices of proxy warriors in Syria are dubious at best. In this regard, the family of Steven Sotloff thinks some of the “good Syrian rebels” actually turned him over to ISIL for later beheading. Fourth, many of our Arab allies are also supporting ISIL in some ways because it is ostensibly fighting Shia powers and advancing Sunni interests in the ongoing religious conflict. This is short sighted on their part because ISIL sees itself as an emerging Caliphate and thus, is not in any way an ally of other centers of power in the Sunni Islamic confession. Finally, a crucial pitfall is the nearly relentless drive of Republicans to find a way to score election-year points by sharpshooting the president’s every word on either domestic or foreign policy issues.

Republican incumbents and candidates will strive incessantly to obscure the origins of ISIL due to the completely unjustified attack on Iraq lauded and launched by the Bush-Cheney administration. Consequently they will waste time and divert energy by seeking to pin the blame for ISIL on President Obama. This diversionary action will not enhance unity among the citizenry and will not increase the credibility of any U S pronouncements or proposals around the world. All current and aspiring candidates from either party should put political calculation aside and bring the most honest and thoughtful consideration possible to bear on this issue. There is far more at stake than any politician’s career.

Sunni and Shia are two versions of Islamic confession with the Shia being between 10 to 15 percent of the total Muslim population. However, “Shiites constitute 80 percent of the native population of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region,” notes Yitzhak Nakash, author of The Shi’is of Iraq. The split between Sunni and Shia emerged shortly after the death of Muhammad. “There was a dispute in the community of Muslims in present-day Saudi Arabia over the question of succession,” says Augustus Norton.

“Shia believed that leadership should stay within the family of the prophet,” notes Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. “And thus they were the partisans of Ali, his cousin and son-in-law.” Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. “It was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split.”

The Sunnis ultimately prevailed and chose the first Caliph. Nonetheless, violent conflict broke out and two of the earliest caliphs were murdered. Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph.  Outright war erupted when Ali became caliph, and he too was killed in fighting in the year 661 near the town of Kufa, in present-day Iraq. Ali’s son, Hussein, became leader of the Shiites. “Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time,” says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. “He stood up to the caliph’s very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred.”

Hussein was decapitated and his head carried in tribute to the Sunni caliph in Damascus. His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there. It is the symbolism of Hussein’s death that holds so much spiritual power for Shiites. Thus, the schism is now in the middle of its 14th century. The bitterness evoked by the slaughter of Hussein and his family still poisons Sunni / Shia relations to the day.

Shiites call their leaders imams. The significance of the imams is a major fundamental difference that separates the two branches of Islam. The Shia imams have a spiritual significance that no clerics in Sunni Islam enjoy. This is especially the case in regard to the story of the 12th Imam, known as the Hidden Imam.

“Shiites believe God took the 12th Imam into hiding, and he will come back at the end of time. He is known as the Mahdi or the Messiah.” Those who believe in the Hidden Imam are known as Twelver Shiites. They are the majority of the Shiites in the world today. Sunnis believe Twelver Shiites are attributing divine qualities to Imams and this is a great sin because the one thing that’s central to Islamic teaching is the oneness of God.

Given this historic context it is not surprising that the relationship of Sunni powers and ISIL is complicated. Sunnis to a large extent do not trust Shia and vice versa. What the purportedly moderate Sunnis need to realize though is that ISIL are so fanatical that they have introduced a third force into the mix. ISIL is not fighting for Sunni dominance; ISIL is fighting to impose their own dominance and they have slaughtered numerous Sunnis along the way. This is part of what President Obama meant when he declared ISIL is not Islamic. ISIL believes in their own 7th century ideology; they are throwbacks to the Dark Ages and they have no real friends or allies in the 21st century.

The part of the president’s strategy that entails arming forces in Syria is highly problematic. The so-called moderate rebels are not that moderate and they are almost entirely sectarian rather than secular. The Free Syrian Army is virtually non-existent and the remnants of the non-ISIL rebels are not reliable. This means the Assad regime and its ally, Hezbollah, may be the best alternatives to ISIL on the ground in Syria. The Assad regime is Alawite-led. “Alawites identify as Shiite Muslims, but the sect carries over older beliefs that predate Islam. For instance, Alawites celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian holidays.”  Many Sunni Arab leaders regard the Assad-Hezbollah alliance as an act of belligerence that pours fuel on the sectarian fire. “In the eyes of Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States, Iran, Hezbollah and the Alawite-led Assad regime are brazenly taking the fight to Sunni Muslims in the name of regional hegemony.”  Thus, a complex situation gets even more tangled due to the sectarian disputes and the roiling regional power struggles.

The final element of President Obama’s approach is to become more unified at home. There is one grave flaw in this, however, Republicans like McCain and Graham just can’t seem to quit their divisive habit of making broad, extreme statements based on ideology rather than detailed knowledge of the situation in regard to ISIL or anything else. Based on a purely political calculation, the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress are resolutely determined to take issue with and delay or defeat everything and anything the president favors. What this means in practice is that Republicans will do absolutely nothing to facilitate the success of the approach President Obama outlined. When one considers that several Democratic members of Congress are also conflicted on this matter, solid support in the Congress may be more of a mirage than a possibility.

In conclusion, we must consider what the highest patriotism calls for from us and our elected officials. First, all Americans need to forego sloganeering and simplistic thinking. Second, concentration must be focused on the truth of the matter. Third, decisions must be made on the basis of what is best for America and what best preserves, protects, and defends the Republic and its citizens. Fourth, all facets of American power must be deployed – diplomatic, economic, philosophic, and military. Fifth, we must be persistent and insistent, but not overbearing. Sixth, as President Obama said in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “Evil does exist in the world.” Consequently, no American president can allow a barbaric caliphate to establish itself in the heart of the Middle East, and neither can American legislators or American citizens. Seventh, we must be realistic and work with all who can enable and empower the achievement of our objective to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy degrading and ultimate destruction of ISIL.”

What lies ahead is not pleasant; it will not be easy; it will not be quick. Nonetheless, the degrading and destroying of ISIL is both possible and necessary. Americans alive today have the burden of living in times that try our souls and as in the past, they who stand their country now will earn the love and thanks of men and women now and till the ending of time.

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  • I know Obama compared his approach to this new conflict with ISIS to that of the drone and air campaigns used in Yemen and Libya. While I’m not shedding a tear over Muammar Gaddafi’s death, I don’t think we can claim Libya has become a safer more peaceful place since our involvement. Likewise, nor can one say that’s true with Yemen.

    I have long believed our military interventionist policies have long made the U.S. a less safe place. Obama’s approach to ISIS is a bit Bush lite. Obama still doesn’t have congressional approval. Nor does he have the authorization of the U.N. This is more of a “coalition of the willing” approach Bush took.

    With “mission creep”, we don’t know if these ratcheting up of U.S. involvement will ultimately lead to American “boots on the ground” or not. What usually happens is our enemies do something like shoot down a few helicopters and next we know we have special forces on the ground and things spiral downwards until we have forces involved.

    Those are my primary objectives.

    Of course have the Republicans blowing as much hot air as possible into the fire doesn’t help. At least Obama looks deliberative. Which is much better than the reactionary response the Republicans are offering.

    This is a really important issue. Thanks Larry for opening up this issue for consideration here at Expats.

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